Shed Grace
Thrill Jockey thrill 140

On Cortez
Locust Music 40

Real Jazz has always been a music of apprenticeship. Unlike so-called classical or pop music where younger players can make a reputation and a living by reinterpreting and/or copying the work of their elders, jazz revolves around what you as a player can bring to the band stand.

That’s why SHED GRACE is a major step forward for the Sticks & Stones trio, while ON CORTEZ is very much an apprentice effort. Saxophonist Aram Shelton, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Tim Daisy, who gave their band its unique name because all were born in 1976, are gathering the experience in Chicago to put them in the sophomore class of players. Reedist Matana Roberts, drummer Chad Taylor — both of whom spend much of their time in New York — and bassist Josh Abrams, on the other hand, are already in the senior class. Individually, and collectively as a trio, they’ve developed distinct identities and appear ready to trade the promising for the established designation.

Each of the Dragons has already racked up an impressive c.v. Shelton is also in bassist Jason Roebke’s trio and recorded in larger ensembles led by reedists Scott Rosenberg and Matt Bauder. Daisy is a member of saxist Ken Vandermark’s quintet and Ajemian has worked in one of Vandermark’s larger bands and in a trio with guitarist Jeff Parker. Still, while each of the seven tunes here is technically impressive, there’s a little too much familiarity about nearly all of them.

Seemingly leaving the best for last, “Humboldt” and “Star Night” the final two pieces, are the most impressive and most original. The first, which in its intensity suggests some mid-period John Coltrane lines such as “Alabama”, finds the saxist showing off a moist, wide vibrato and some Eastern inflected trills. Ajemian contributes tremolo shuffle bowing and Daisy rumbling ratamacues and press rolls. Daisy then relies on his mallets to give the saxman a foundation on which to play out his harder lines.

Mallet work is on display on “Star Night”, which is taken at a leisurely, almost largo, pace. Arco, the bassist exhibits double stopping vibrato, the drummer rumbles away on his kit and Shelton’s slurs and passing tones are upfront. The interpretation is why the young Dragons will eventually have a bright future; leaning how to play expressively at a slow tempo is what separates the mature professionals from the also-rans.

Unfortunately the rest of the album doesn’t live up to these two tunes. Cymbal snaps, walking bass lines and offbeat reed trills show that collectively they can handle blues, Latin rhythms and near-hard bop. But while many of the tunes are foot tappers, a patina of originality is missing. No matter how many times Ajemian thumps his bass, Daisy plays a shuffle or Shelton chirps and double times, there are many other bands — even on Chicago’s North Side — that can do the same.

In contrast, Sticks & Stones has graduated to a higher plane after more than five years of apprenticeship. Perhaps it relates to the trio members more extensive working experience. Roberts has played with stylists as different as saxophonist Fred Anderson and Anthony Braxton, guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and Jeff Parker and is part of the jazz-rock-funk-hiphop collective Burnt Sugar. Taylor takes part in brassman Rob Mazurek’s Chicago Underground projects, works with veteran altoist Jemeel Moondoc, and is in Triptych Myth with bassist Tom Abbs and pianist Cooper-Moore. Instructively, Abrams’ gigs are as likely to include fellow Chicago Undergrounder guitarist Parker as avant-garde chamber player, reedist Guillermo Gregorio.

SHED GRACE takes its inspiration from all over. On “The Refusal” for instance, as well as regular sounds from his kit, Taylor produces textures that appear to come from log drums and a kalimba. For her part Roberts adds a reedy coloratura that then mixes it up with double stopping emphasis from bass and splash cymbals. When Abrams gets the spotlight for obtuse ponticello bowing, the reedist moves to a lower pitch adding the occasional altissimo squeaks for effect. Finally this Europe-meets-Africa extravaganza ends with Roberts floating the legato melody on top of hand drumming and cymbal noises.

Pieces like “Veatrice”, “So Very Cold” and “Colonial Mentality” swing, but Taylor’s off beats and counter rhythms are often such that it’s likely that the hip-hop samplers will be investigating his beat tapestry. At times alternating pizzicato and arco lines, Abrams shows that he can carry the rhythm for subtle foot patting when need be, and at different times Roberts shows off double tonguing and warbling bird-like lines or farm yard animal like slurs that vibrate in various pitches.

On the other hand, the altoist manages to inject enough of her personality into the unfolding beauty of Billy Strayhorn”s “Isfahan” — misspelled on the label, by the way — to have her performance stack up against others who have handled the tune. Staring with double timed variations on the theme, she elaborates it with a loose, relaxed swing feel. Avoiding excessive sweetness, she cuts the sugar with the equivalent of cayenne pepper, adding a more pronounced vibrato and flutter tonguing to her reading. Following some fat bass fingerings from Abrams, she reprises the melody straight, then speeds it up for a coda.

About the only misstep the three take here is in their version of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy”. Doing it much slower than usual, with bowed bass and shaking cymbal beats makes the tune more dramatic, but this theatricality also removes its distinctiveness.

Still that’s really the only drawback. And it’s no reason not to make SHED GRACE a valuable listen to seek out. As for Dragons 1976’s 40-minute debut, it shows the same sort of derivative disappointments mixed with remarkable promise that Sticks & Stones first CD had on its release.

Maybe second time around, those three can create something as exceptional as SHED GRACE.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Cortez: 1. Canopy 2. Felt 3. Upstairs Downstairs 4. Heater 5. The Way It Is 6. Humboldt 7. Star Night

Personnel: Cortez: Aram Shelton (alto saxophone); Jason Ajemian (bass); Tim Daisy (drums)

Track Listing: Grace: 1. Shed Grace 2. The Refusal 3. Wordful 4. Skippy 5. Veatrice 6. So Very Cold 7. Colonial Mentality 8. Wonder Twins 9. Isfahan 10. 4:30

Personnel: Grace: Matana Roberts (alto saxophone); Josh Abrams (bass); Chad Taylor (drums and percussion)